Classical Music For Metalheads

Whether you‘re a diehard classical music fan who’s trying to get your favorite metalhead to branch out a bit, or a metalhead who’s just looking for something new, check out this list. Contrapuntist and I are both classically trained musicians and metal fans.  We thought this would be a good way to share our two musical loves.

Plus, you might be surprised to learn that classical music and heavy metal aficionados have more in common than you might think. According to an article I found:

Psychologists have found that classical aficionados share virtually identical personality traits with ‘metalheads’ – fans of bands such as Slipknot, Megadeth and Bullet For My Valentine.

We certainly don’t consider the following works a definitive list, but more a starting point for metalheads to become familiar with this style of music.  At the end of the list, you’ll find a widget with all the pieces listed.  Please note, the widget has entire albums which may contain additional works besides the ones we have recommended.

John Adams – Short Ride in a Fast Machine – Fanfare for Orchestra. If you like it loud, fast, and percussive, you’ll love the music by this American minimalist composer.

Johann Sebastian Bach – Solo Sonatas and Partitas for Violin; Solo Suites for Cello. If you like listening to virtuosic playing, then Bach is a must.  Granted, Bach is from the Baroque era and perhaps a stretch, the fact is his music tests every musician regardless of instrument.  Each collection is considered standard for all string players including classical guitarists.

Samuel Barber – Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 38. This piece is full of interesting harmonies, beautiful melodies, and unusual time signatures.  In the third movement, the pianist gets to bang the heck out of the piano.

Béla Bartók – Music for Strings, Percussion, Celesta, and Orchestra, Sz. 106, BB 114. Another piece with interesting harmonies and complicated time signatures.  It’s also incredibly challenging for even the best orchestras.  Metalheads will appreciate the use of percussion.  

George Crumb – Black Angels – This piece will turn your concept of the sound of the traditional violin, viola, and cello, upside down. The piece is written for amplified string quartet. It was inspired by the Vietnam War and was written as a commentary on our troubled world. Performers trill on the strings with thimbles and also play maracas, tam-tams, and water-tuned crystal goblets.

Paul Hindemith – Viola Sonatas Op. 25 No. 1 and Op. 25 No. 4.  As a violist, I have to stick these pieces in here. I would also highly recommend this particular recording. This early 20th century composer invented his own harmonic language. He even integrated jazz into some of his music. It’s extremely difficult, and extremely fun to play.

Gustav Holst – The Planets. This symphonic masterpiece inspired the music on Divine Wings of Tragedy by Symphony X.  In particular, Mars – The Bringer of War is rhythmic and intense is directly borrowed by Symphony X.

Stephen Montague – At The White Edge Of Phrygia. This composer is not widely known, but after hearing this piece as a college freshman, Contrapuntist fell in love with it. The music is rhythmic, included a lot of percussion, and uses instruments in a unique way.  For example, the opening starts out with wind players blowing into their instruments without mouthpieces. This recording is not included in the widget since there are no MP3 files available, but can be found here.

Steve Reich – Drumming. Reich is a minimalistic composer, which mean his music consists of motives (in metal speak this translates to “riff”).  This piece is like a percussion ensemble on steroids.  The steady flow of rhythmic pounding on the drums as the music shifts from motive to motive is hypnotic.

Sergei Prokofiev – Symphony No. 5 in B flat major, Op. 100. If you like political protest music, then you’ll love the next two pieces. Along with Shostakovich and Stravinsky, who are listed below, Prokofiev is one of a group of Russian composers who struggled to write music under the Soviet regime in the early 20th century. There was a point at which the Soviet government considered him an enemy of the state, although Symphony No. 5 met with the government’s approval. Prokofiev and Shostakovich both pushed the boundaries of traditional tonality. Check out the third movement of this piece, in which the orchestra almost seems like a giant wind-up mechanical instrument.

Dmitri Shostakovich – Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, Op.47.  Shostakovich wrote this piece in response to Joseph Stalin’s criticism of his opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. The state newspaper condemned his work as corrupting the Soviet spirit in addition to personally attacking Shostakovich. Check out the power of the final movement of the piece. On the surface, it’s a triumphant march, but it ends in despair.

Richard Strauss – Death and Transfiguration, Op. 24. Death and dying are prevalent themes not only in metal music but also in classical pieces. Death and Transfiguration is an early 20th century tone poem which depicts a dying man’s journey in a very visceral way. It starts out quietly, with the man’s heartbeat, takes us through a wild rendering of his death, and ends with his peaceful arrival in the afterworld.

Igor Stravinsky – Rite of Spring. This music was so controversial that it caused riots at its 1913 premiere and changed the face of classical music forever. The music was written for a ballet, and its subtitle is “Pictures of Pagan Russia”. It’s about a celebration of pagan rituals that leads to the sacrifice of a young woman to the gods in celebration of spring. Metalheads will be especially interested in the final section of the music, entitled “Sacrificial Dance”. I’d compare it to Dream Theater’s Dance of Eternity in its rhythmic complexity and aggression.

Mark-Anthony Turnage – SCORCHED. SCORCHED stands for Scofield Orchestrated.  John Scofield is a prominent jazz guitarist who started his career with Miles Davis.  Contrapuntist and I had the pleasure of hearing this piece performed with John Scofield and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra last year.  Here the review Contrapuntist wrote shortly after the performance

Eugène Ysaÿe – Six Sonatas for Solo Violin, Op. 27. The 20th century Belgian composer was inspired to write these pieces after listening to a performance of one of Bach’s Solo violin sonatas. He wanted to demonstrate the evolution of musical techniques and expression of the 20th century. This music is like the Bach solo violin sonatas, but twisted up in a funhouse mirror. These pieces are mind-boggling in their difficulty. Check out the finale of Sonata No. 4.

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